Unity cross country: Rocket fuel

Unity cross country: Rocket fuel

TOLONO — For most teams stocked with three sophomores and a freshman, a second-place finish at the Class 1A state meet would not only be reason for celebration, but for jubilation.

But the celebration was tempered for the Unity girls' cross-country team a year ago at Detweiller Park in Peoria.

As they accepted their second-place awards, the Rockets did so knowing what it was like to win a state title. Just a year earlier, the Rockets lifted the 1A championship trophy with four freshmen in their ranks.

"I wouldn't say that we were disappointed, but it was harder for us to be happy finishing in second place just because we knew what it was like to be on top and we wanted to be there," Unity junior Jordan Harmon said. "We were all definitely still happy to be second."

This season, the Rockets are starting to feel championship-level chemistry that began on a team camping trip in early June.

The trip involved canoeing, camp fires, and, of course, plenty of trail running.

Most importantly, it built chemistry on a 19-runner team that'll integrate six freshmen.

"The freshmen just realized that everyone else was ready for them," Harmon said. "We didn't view them as, 'Oh, they're freshmen.' We view them as, 'We're part of the team.' I think that trip helped them realize that they're just as important as the seniors and the juniors and the sophomores."

A few freshmen in particular will play key roles. A year ago, Caroline Bachert took 10th for Unity Middle School in the 2A IESA cross country meet, and Evelyn Atkins took 11th in 1A for St. Thomas. Coach Kara Leaman expects them both to contend for the No. 2 spot on the team.

Bachert, Leaman said, might even nip at Harmon's heels, and that would be no small feat. The junior is the top returner in 1A after taking fifth at last year's state meet.

Those freshmen aren't the only reason Leaman and the Rockets think they'll improve enough to contend with defending champion St. Joseph-Ogden, which returns five of its top seven runners.

Among the returners is sophomore Kylie Decker, whose 5K times over the summer are more than a minute better than they were a year ago.

All of that could add up to taking back their state championship come November.

"Getting second is definitely something to be proud of, but after getting first, it definitely was a little bit hard on the girls to experience," Leaman said. "I'd just say overall this year their mentality has been positive, and they're ready to fight to get back on top."

Harmon can feel a special season approaching, even if she's trying to temper her expectations.

"I'm trying not to get too excited because I can just see at practices how well we get along with each other, and we're all working hard, we're all getting along with each other," she said. "It's just really exciting and the season hasn't even started yet. It's just really cool."